Nisa-Today’s CEO Neil Turton and Today’s Group MD Bill Laird talk exclusively to Beth Phillips about the implications of the buying group’s separation

Do you remember when you were a kid and you had to share your room with a sibling? If you were the younger one, no doubt your older brother or sister got the best bed and the biggest wall space for their posters.

Today’s Group MD Bill Laird can sympathise. The wholesale arm of Nisa-Today’s has shared Nisa’s HQ in Scunthorpe for the past 24 years. However, last week 99.86% of Nisa-Today’s members voted for Today’s Group to form a separate company.

The vote results, from the first quarter of next year, in Today’s Group becoming Today’s Wholesale Services after buying the intellectual property assets ­associated with Today’s Group from Nisa-Today’s for £100, and moving out of the company’s Scunthorpe HQ. In turn, Nisa-Today’s will become Nisa, focusing purely on its 950 retail members.

“Today’s is 24 years old and that 24-year-old has grown up with its older sibling, but it’s now time for it to move out and make its own way in the world,” says Today’s Group MD Bill Laird, as he sits alongside Nisa-Today’s CEO Neil Turton in the Scunthorpe offices. “It’s ready to fend for itself.”

Today’s has lived in the shadow of Nisa for some time. Even though Today’s £5.4bn turnover is vastly superior to that of Nisa’s £1.5bn, Today’s is often perceived as the smaller player. Visitors to the Scunthorpe HQ would agree. It is dominated by Nisa’s vast central distribution operation across the road, through which it serves its members. Inside the headquarters, just 10% (26) of Nisa’s 280 staff work for Today’s.

That’s why the separation will provide a “cleaner and clearer” operation for both parties, with greater clarity for members and suppliers, believes Turton, who actually started his career with Nisa-Today’s in 1991 as a buyer for Today’s Group. “Today’s was born out of history rather than the present or future,” he explains. “In 1987, when Today’s was formed, the grocery trade was a different place. The world was driven by scale. You could go to suppliers much more and say: ‘We’re big, therefore we demand a better deal.’ These days suppliers say: ‘So what?’ because they want to see delivery.”

It’s increasingly hard for the two companies to harness their buying power and purchase together, he says, as suppliers deal with different buyers and thrash out separate deals. “Retail and wholesale are completely different,” he says. “In retail, promotions are most likely to be EPoS-driven. In wholesale, it’s all about bulk and volume. And then there’s the difference in pack sizes, trade marketing the list goes on. Higher up the brand hierarchy, it’s virtually impossible.”

Turton and Laird both admit Nisa-Today’s had been “flirting” with the idea of a separation for some time. But the key to making the move now is because both companies are trading well. Earlier this year, Nisa-Today’s revealed plans to pay members a record surplus of £5m after reporting record sales. Today’s, meanwhile, reported a 5.5% increase in value sales and a 3.9% increase in volume sales in the first half of the year, despite the distraction of the separation.

“It was really important that we made the decision on the back of a period of good performance,” says Laird. “It would have made a real difference if it had been in reaction to a slump because we’d have been motivated by different factors. But because both businesses are performing extremely well, we could look at it from a stable base.”

Turton adds: “We could have not done anything and carried on together as before, but it pays to make the right decision at the right time. It wasn’t an easy decision and it’s been very time-consuming, but if we wanted to avoid turbulence, we’d never do anything. So we took the view that as the trading environment was good, but the needs of each business were so different, we needed to act now.”

Work has already started in earnest to get the two companies ready for the separation, which is anticipated to be completed by the end of January. Laird’s most pressing concern is his staff, who have now entered into a consultation. Although the majority of Today’s existing 26 staff are anticipated to move across to the new company, moving to an as yet unnamed location means that some may not be able to relocate. This week, a number of high-profile appointments were announced, including a new finance director and retail director (see Movers, p62). Laird and Turton are also thrashing out a new trading relationship and the assets Today’s will take with it when it leaves Scunthorpe.

In the spirit of an amicable separation, the separate ways the two companies are going aren’t actually that separate. About 2% of Nisa’s central distribution volumes or around 100,000 cases a week head out to Today’s wholesale members or associated retailers, and this is expected to continue.

It is also anticipated that Today’s will become a member of Nisa, and Nisa-Today’s annual exhibition will also be jointly held by Nisa and Today’s in 2012. The two will also continue to buy together at, says Turton, “an arm’s length basis”. Although it’s been difficult for the companies to buy together, on some items such as sugar it has worked well, and this commercial relationship is expected to remain.

Today’s celebrates its 25th anniversary next year and Laird says that following the separation a “good result” will be “a transition without an adverse impact on ­either company”. He plans to “intensify” what Today’s does in the sector, focusing especially on the on-trade and foodservice, and this week appointed two new recruits to focus on the foodservice sector.

Nisa, meanwhile, will gain Today’s retail development director Raj Krishan to help develop Nisa’s fast-growing symbol chain. Nisa is also launching a new fascia called Loco for retailers who want to open a store where there is a Nisa close by. And it plans another wave of TV advertising following its debut last Christmas.

Smaller changes are also planned. Following the separation, Nisa will have a year to clean up its branding and change its name, which it plans to do at next year’s agm.

“We’ve slightly anticipated the separation if you look at the new [Nisa] design of our lorries and the new sign on our central distribution,” says Turton. “We know it’s what the members want.”

Adds Laird: “Today’s has had great support from its older sibling, but it’s ready to tread its own path.”

Today’s Group grows up

October 1987 Nisa founder Dudley Ramsden creates the wholesale division Today’s Group. It merges with Nisa’s retail division to create Nisa-Today’s. Rodney Hunt becomes MD

1999 Nisa-Today’s is formally divided into its three main trading areas: Nisa-Today’s retail; Today’s wholesale; and Central Distribution Services

2009 Rodney Hunt retires as managing director of Today’s Group. He is replaced by Bill Laird

January 2011 Nisa-Today’s holds annual board strategy meeting where idea of Today’s separating from Nisa is discussed

April 2011 Consultation launched for Today’s members to give their views on the separation at Nisa-Today’s annual exhibition in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire

April/May 2011 Meetings held with Today’s members in Manchester, Glasgow, Reading, Coventry and Belfast

July 2011 More than 90% of Today’s Group members vote for separation to go ahead. Nisa-Today’s board of directors votes unanimously for the separation to proceed to the next stage

September 2011 Board of directors agrees for separation to be voted on at annual general meeting

28 September 2011 99.86% of Nisa-Today’s members vote for Today’s Group to form new company Today’s Wholesale Services